About six years ago, the Department of Health and Human Services closed its office in Dover-Foxcroft, and, since that time, residents have had to travel to Bangor or Skowhegan to access important services. Helping Hands with Heart (HHH), formerly known as the Piscataquis County Children’s Cabinet, made reinstating DHHS services in our county a priority at the beginning of 2012. Our members represent a broad range of community providers, clergy, school board members and concerned citizens.
DHHS offers more than child protective services. A trip to Bangor or Skowhegan is required to complete the process to get long-term care if your elderly parent or spouse needs nursing home care, to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), Medicaid for children, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the ASPIRE program for employment assistance.
Like most areas in Maine, we have natural boundaries and “service areas” beyond our county borders. Portions of Penobscot and Somerset counties see Piscataquis County as their “service destination” for not only social services but also for shopping, entertainment and recreation.
Our analysis confirmed that Piscataquis County is home to the largest concentration of senior citizens in the state. Seniors compose more than 20 percent of our total population, and this percentage is climbing.
Unemployment and poverty are the second-highest in the state. Participation in free, and reduced lunch for elementary school children ranges from 52.9 to 80.7 percent, while enrollment for children in MaineCare actually fell during the past couple of years to 59.2 percent. Free or reduced lunch is often used as a proxy for poverty.
DHHS officials agreed with us that these data alone strongly imply that at least 20 percent of children in Piscataquis County, who would be eligible for health care, are not able to access this important coverage.
It is difficult to compare the distance that residents in our rural area must drive to access important DHHS services to those distances that residents in the midcoast area travel. Piscataquis County is one of 440 counties across the U.S. identified with the “frontier status” of fewer than seven residents per square mile. Our status is 4.3 residents per square mile.
There are 74 people per square mile in Lincoln County. Residents in Damariscotta drive 25 miles one way to get to the Rockland DHHS office; from Belfast to Rockland is 28 miles one way. However, the map on the DHHS website shows satellite offices in Sagadahoc and Waldo Counties as well as the district office in Rockland, making this travel unnecessary.
If you live in Brownville, you must drive 44.9 miles or about 58 minutes one way to get to the Bangor DHHS Regional office. If you live in Greenville, this trip is 70.1 miles. From Dexter, a one way ride to Bangor is 41.2 miles, and from Dover-Foxcroft, it is 38 miles. Each of these distances is further complicated by weather and poor roads.
The realities of rural travel are recognized by DHHS in other rural Maine counties. Aroostook County has three DHHS offices; Washington County has two.
On April 20, these and other disparities were highlighted at the Multigenerational Poverty Seminar sponsored by HHH and supported through funds from the Maine Community Foundation. Leadership from DHHS was present and shared our concerns. A meeting was held May 22 in Augusta between five HHH representatives and Therese Cahill-Low, director of the Office of Child & Family Services. Cahill-Low shared our concerns and committed to take this issue to the commissioner for resolution.
We know from follow-up discussions that at least one conversation did happen at that level and the leadership of DHHS has concurred with our request. The next step promised was a meeting with the commissioner. In the meantime, we have talked with town managers, churches and community services to see if space was available for DHHS outreach workers, as we were told the current budget situation prevents the state from renting new facilities. HHH has secured commitments for space for DHHS to use in a majority of our communities at no cost.
We appreciate Rep. Fredette’s most recent commitment to put forth a bill in January 2013 to ensure DHHS services in every Maine County and hope that this legislation passes. We look forward to working with him and the DHHS to reinstate services as soon as possible. We have been working on this for more than six months and do not want to prolong the wait to have these services restored in Piscataquis County. Rep. Fredette’s legislation would, if passed, become effective next summer which means our region would go at least another year without county-based access to DHHS services. We look forward to our continued partnership with DHHS and Rep. Fredette in reinstating local access to these critical services immediately.
Patricia Smith is a long-standing member of the MSAD 46 school board and chairman of Helping Hands with Heart.